Borges and I
Borges and I
JORGE LUIS BORGES
In "Borges and I," the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges meditates on the relationship between his private and public selves. The poem is quintessentially Borges: puzzling, ambiguous, and even shocking. First published in 1957 in Spanish as "Borges y yo" in the journal Biblioteca, the poem was included in Borges's 1960 collection, El Hacedor (The Maker). This volume was translated into English and released in 1964 as Dreamtigers. It was here that "Borges and I" was first made available in English.
"Borges and I" is very short, barely three hundred words long. However, while the vocabulary and the words of the poem are simple, the ideas contained in the poem are very complex. Indeed, even the genre of the work is hard to determine. Is "Borges and I" even a poem at all?
During his early career, Borges published many poems. After about 1938, however, he began writing short stories, including some of his most famous, "The Garden of Forking Paths," "Death and the Compass," and "The Library of Babel." By 1955, however, Borges had grown nearly blind, and his work became increasingly enigmatic and brief.
During this period, he began producing short meditations he called parables. Without rhyme or meter, and without special lining, the works resemble very short fiction; nevertheless, these small pieces of writing are poetic in their images, their themes, and their allusive, metaphoric
language. "Borges and I," then, is best considered a prose poem, an intensely focused and sharply tuned exploration into the heart of public and private identity. When asked about his writing in several interviews, Borges always responded that he thought of himself as a poet, first and foremost.
"Borges and I" is perhaps Borges's most frequently anthologized and best known poem, and remains available in several editions of Borges's writing, including Labyrinths (1964), edited and translated by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. While this anthology was published over forty years ago, it has been through thirty-two printings and remains the standard source for the English translation (by Irby) of "Borges and I." Indeed "Borges and I" has become Borges's most emblematic poem, translated by various writers and appearing in many anthologies. The poem title even serves as the title of a documentary detailing the writer's life.
"Borges and I" continues to fascinate popular readers and scholars alike. Through the poem, readers walk with Borges through the streets of Buenos Aires and find themselves confronted with the ultimate question: who is writing the tale?
Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He grew up living with his parents in the home of his paternal grandmother. Because Borges's grandmother was an Englishwoman, he learned to speak English at the same time he learned to speak Spanish, as had his father. In addition, his father's library, the source of much of Borges's education, was almost exclusively comprised of English language books. He early on demonstrated fascination with the workings of language; in addition to his native fluency in both English and Spanish, he later learned French, German, Latin, and Old English.
As a young man, Borges traveled to Europe with his family. While they were there, World War I broke out, and the family was forced to remain in Geneva, Switzerland, for the duration of the war. Borges attended college in Geneva, graduating in 1918. Rather than returning home at that time, the family continued their tour of Europe, living in Spain for the next three years. It was while he was in Spain that Borges began to write poetry under the influence of a group of Spanish poets known as the Ultraístas.
After returning to Argentina in 1921, Borges published his first book of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires) in 1923. Over the next several years, he published two more books of poetry and three books of essays. As a result, he became increasingly well known in the Argentine literary community.
In 1937, beset with financial difficulties, Borges accepted a post as a librarian in the municipal library. There was little work for him to do, and he spent much of his time reading, particularly work by Franz Kafka. During his time at the library, Borges began to formulate some of the ideas that eventually found their way into some of his most important work, such as the short story, "The Library of Babel."
The late 1930s were difficult years for Borges. His father's death in 1938 was a tremendous loss for him. Borges credited his father with introducing him to language and poetry. In addition, Borges suffered an accident in the same year, just months after his father's death, gashing his head on an open casement window. The wound became infected, and Borges nearly died. When he recovered, he no longer wrote the poetry of his youth, but turned instead to a completely new genre, something that he called ficciones. He published a book of these short stories in 1941, titled El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths).
During the 1940s and 1950s, Borges grew increasingly blind; while his production of new writing decreased, his international fame increased. "Borges y yo" was published during this period in the journal Biblioteca in 1957. The poem was next included in Borges's 1960 collection, El Hacedor (The Maker). This volume was translated into English and released in 1964 as Dreamtigers. It was in this volume that "Borges and I" was first available in English.
By the time of the publication of "Borges and I," the author was known throughout the world. In 1961, he shared with Samuel Beckett the prestigious Formentor International Publishers Prize. From this point on, he began traveling around the world, giving lectures and teaching classes at universities. In 1985, Borges left Argentina for the last time, traveling to Europe. It was there that he died on June 14, 1986, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Because the poem is written in more of prose-like form, the thoughts and ideas that are expressed often run together and are not as clearly divided as they would be if they were split up into more formal poetic stanzas and lines. Thus, the poem as is it discussed here is broken up into sections that also overlap.
Indeed, "Borges and I" has no plot. Rather, it is a poem that explores the relationship between private and public selves, as well as the ways that text multiplies and refracts further identities. The poem opens with an unnamed narrator referring to "the other one, the one called Borges" as someone who experiences life; he "is the one things happen to." The implication, then, is that things do not happen to the narrator, but that he is somehow connected to Borges, since he calls Borges "the other one." This reference suggests that the narrator is also Borges, perhaps the private human being behind the public persona known as "Borges."
The narrator is capable of action, rather than being someone acted upon; he walks the streets of Buenos Aires, he looks at architectural features, he reads the mail. The narrator knows about Borges from text he sees included in the mail, in biographical dictionaries, and "on a list of professors." In other words, he seems to know Borges in the same way he knows the architecture of Buenos Aires, from the outside. Furthermore, it is through text itself that he knows something about Borges. This implies that the narrator has no real knowledge of the inner Borges, perhaps because the narrator is the inner Borges.
- A recording of Borges reading some of his best known works in Spanish was released in 1999 by the Argentine government. Samples from this compact disk, including "Borges y yo," are available in RealAudio at www.terra.com.ar/especiales/borges/bor_audios.shtml.
- Selected Fictions was released as an audiotape by Penguin Audio Books in 1998. The stories were translated by Andrew Hurley and read by George Guidall. "Borges and I" is also included on this audiotape.
- A documentary based on interviews with Borges titled Borges and I was produced by Gilles Couture in 1983, and is available on tape through Home Vision. Phrases from "Borges and I," are used throughout, though the film is predominantly a look at Borges's life.
The narrator next lists a series of things that he likes, ranging from hourglasses to "the prose of Stevenson." Readers familiar with Borges's life know that the work of Robert Louis Stevenson was influential for Borges, and that he had a fascination with time and timepieces. Likewise, the narrator tells the reader that he and Borges share the same list of preferences. However, the narrator also says that Borges's appreciation of these items is somehow false, in the same way that an actor is false. The narrator, it seems, distinguishes between preferring something for itself and preferring something for the impression it gives.
In the next few lines, the narrator makes the connection between himself and Borges through the literature that Borges writes. Although the narrator says that the "literature justifies" him, he also reports that the "pages cannot save" him. This is because literature does not belong to one person or any person; rather, good writing is the product of language and tradition. This statement, the notion that individual authors do not matter, but what does matter is tradition, is at the core of many of Borges's writings.
At the midpoint of the poem, the tone shifts. The narrator recognizes that he is mortal, and "destined to perish." Although there will be something left of him in the literature that Borges writes, the narrator understands that he, the person who he understands himself to be, will ultimately disappear. Indeed, even in his present life, he is being taken over by Borges, who may, or may not, represent him accurately, since Borges has the "custom of falsifying and magnifying things." The poem seems to be making a case that the public persona of a writer can overtake, subsume, and ultimately destroy the private life of the individual person who is the writer. In addition, the poem makes the point that the living, breathing human being who is Borges will cease to exist in time and space. All that will be left are texts created by Borges the writer that will somehow point to the living human being who once walked the streets of Buenos Aires.
In the next line, the narrator alludes to Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin. Spinoza believed, as the narrator relates, that beings want to continue being at an essential level. That is, all human beings want to continue being that which is essentially human. The narrator finds, however, that as Borges writes about him, he loses his own recognizable essence. In fact, he becomes more and more a text of Borges's creation and less and less of a human being. In effect, the narrator realizes that he has become another character in Borges's writing.
In the end, the narrator knows that he will either be obliterated, or he will become totally subsumed by Borges. In either case, the narrator's essence will have been erased. In the last line, the identity of the narrator and that of Borges have become so entwined that neither reader nor the writer, the narrator nor Borges, knows who has written the page.
In "Borges and I," Borges demonstrates how problematic the concept of identity can be. In this short poem, the narrator, who can be identified variously as Borges the narrator, Borges the writer, or an unnamed narrator, speaks about his own identity. He establishes his personhood by listing the things that he likes: "hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson." To enjoy such things implies a physical being; abstract ideas, for example, cannot sip coffee. Thus, by listing his preferences, the narrator establishes that he is an individual with specific likes and dislikes. Such a list creates an identity for the narrator. In addition, he attempts to distinguish his own identity from that of the "other" Borges (the public persona) by telling the reader that Borges, too, enjoys these same things.
He further attempts to distinguish himself from Borges (and thus solidify his own identity) by stating that "It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship." The word "relationship" necessarily implies a second, distinct individual with a second identity, as does the narrator's insistence that there is a Borges who is other than himself. However, while the first section of the poem works hard to develop an identity for the narrator as distinct from Borges, by the middle of the poem, the boundaries between the two begin to blur as the narrator comes to understand that "little by little, I am giving over everything to him." The identity that the narrator has attempted to forge for himself in the first half of the poem crumbles as he confronts his own mortality and the realization that he is no longer even recognizable, except perhaps "in the laborious strumming of a guitar." Nevertheless, although the movement of the poem is away from a discrete narrative identity toward a melding of the narrator and Borges, the last line of the poem still comes as a shock: "I do not know which of us has written this page." In this final line, set off as a new paragraph, the distinction between the identity of the narrator and the identity of Borges is fully erased.
Although Borges wrote "Borges and I" and the rest of his work before the time commonly associated with the postmodernism movement, most critics would agree that in Borges, postmodernists find a precursor to their own ideas. (This is ironic, of course, since it was Borges who argued that all writers invent their own precursors.) One of the most important literary concepts of postmodernism that Borges exploits in his own work is that of "metafiction." Metafiction, at its most fundamental level, is simply writing about writing. However, the idea can be both complicated and complex in its execution.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- In 1994, the writer Daniel Halpern invited many writers to produce short parables in the style of "Borges and I." The resulting book, Who's Writing This?, is a collection of those efforts. Read this book and then compose your own parable, using "Borges and I" as your starting point. Ask some of your classmates to join the project and collect their work into a class anthology of Borges-like parables.
- Read Borges's short story "Death and the Compass," Edgar Allan Poe's" The Purloined Letter," and Luis Fernando Verissimo's novel Borges and the Eternal Orangutans. What details from Borges's life and stories does Verissimo use to structure his novel? How does an understanding of Poe help in understanding the novel? What connections can you find between Verissimo's novel and "Borges and I"? Write a book review of Verissimo's novel in which you demonstrate why having a knowledge of both Borges and Poe is helpful in understanding the novel.
- Research the ideas of Baruch Spinoza. Why do you think that Borges alludes to Spinoza in this poem? Prepare a poster presenting Spinoza's ideas and how they intersect with Borges's ideas, as revealed in "Borges and I."
- One of the most important metaphors in Borges's work is that of the labyrinth. Read the Greek myth of the labyrinth before reading several additional short stories by Borges, including "The Garden of Forking Paths." Why do you think that the labyrinth symbol is so important to Borges? How is the poem "Borges and I" like a labyrinth? Create a visual representation of a labyrinth to share with your classmates, and demonstrate how Borges uses the metaphor in several of his stories.
- In "Borges and I," Borges creates himself as a literary character. Likewise, other writers such as Umberto Eco and Luis Fernando Verissimo have used Borges as a character in their stories. After researching Borges's life and work, write a short story or poem that alludes to Borges and uses him as a character.
Throughout the nineteenth century, many writers increasingly attempted to capture reality in their stories. That is, through the faithful recounting of the details of life, they attempted to give life to their characters and stories, even when these details were ugly or difficult to bear. Over time, readers began to expect that stories would be realistic, or somehow true to life. Indeed, in realistic fiction, both reader and writer enter into a sort of covenant: the writer agrees to follow certain conventions in the creation of his or her story, and the reader agrees to suspend disbelief and enter the fictional world. Together, the writer and the reader create a world that functions according to the rules of fiction, but that nonetheless seems to point to a real world beyond the fiction.
Metafiction, however, demonstrates that stories are not real life, but rather are always necessarily fictions. By calling attention to themselves as pieces of writing, rather than life, metafictional stories remind the reader that, in the final analysis, a piece of writing is no more than black ink on white pages. Ironically, one of the ways that metafiction accomplishes this task is by blurring the lines between so-called fact and fiction. By interspersing a story with events or characters or truths from the world outside of the story, the writer blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, a favorite Borgesian ploy.
"Borges and I" functions as a metafictional poem by using the name of its writer as a character, thus blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. By doing so, the poem encourages the reader to believe that it is saying something important and autobiographical about the Argentine writer, Borges. In some ways, the struggle of the poem's narrator to maintain the distinction between himself and Borges reflects the reader's struggle to learn something factual about the writer Borges from the words on the page. The poem, while seeming to reveal some important melancholy truth about the relationship between a writer and his work, ultimately serves to conceal the writer behind the work.
"Borges and I" plays a game with the reader by forcing the reader to question the identity of the narrator of the poem. As Kane X. Faucher writes in his article "The Decompression of Meta-Borges in ‘Borges and I’," "‘Borges and I’ presents its readers with a perplexing riddle: who is the author?" Faucher then delineates all possible answers to that question. However, it is only through the recognition that "Borges and I" is metafictional that the reader comes to understand that neither the narrator nor the Borges of the poem are really Borges, the writer of the poem. The living and breathing Borges no longer exists, and all he has left behind is ink on paper. When Borges concludes his poem, "I no longer know which one of us has written this page," he is being ironic. Neither of the characters of the poem, the narrator nor Borges, has written the page, since they are fictional characters, incapable of independent action apart from the pages that create them.
Imagery, or the use of words and phrases that figuratively connect to the senses, is one of Borges's characteristic devices in "Borges and I." The poem begins as a walk through the streets of Buenos Aires while the narrator recounts what he sees: "the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate." The attention to architectural detail engages the reader's sense of sight. The narrator next lists a number of items that both he and Borges like, including "the taste of coffee." Again, Borges appeals to the senses. In so doing, he begins to create a reality for the narrator and for the "other" Borges, a reality in which there are concrete, physical objects that can be sensed. Later, the narrator says that he recognizes himself "less in his books than … in the laborious strumming of a guitar," an appeal to the sense of hearing. It is as if the narrator tries to place himself outside of language by suggesting that he himself is more like music than typography. Throughout the poem, then, sensory detail serves to both create, then destroy, the character of the narrator, and to build the "other" Borges.
Narrative and Identity
A narrator is, quite simply, the "I" of a story or poem. Often, the narrator is no more than a presence, or a voice. However in "Borges and I," the narrator is a full character. On first reading, it is easy to assume that the "I" is Borges himself. However, on subsequent readings, it becomes difficult to determine whose voice it really is: Borges the narrator; or Borges the writer; or perhaps some other unnamed voice; or, quite possibly, another voice named "Borges." Through his complication of the notion of the narrator, Borges creates a labyrinth of possible meanings for his poem. Rather than offering a simple distinction between the public and private persona of Borges the writer and Borges the man, the poem, through the multiplicity of the narrative voice, becomes not two voices, but an infinite chorus.
During his lifetime, Borges saw his home country of Argentina go through repeated political upheavals. As a member of an Anglophile, patrician family, Borges saw his own fortunes wax and wane as various political factions rose, then fell from power.
For Borges, the historical and cultural contexts that informed his work were not limited to Argentina, however. Borges grew up speaking both English and Spanish. In addition, he received much of his education in Geneva, during World War I. There he became acquainted with the work of writers such as Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer. After World War I, Borges remained in Europe and discovered the leading voices of a new way of thinking called modernism: James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Luigi Pirandello, to name just a few. When he returned to Argentina, Borges brought this influence with him.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: In Argentina, Juan Perón continues his presidency through 1955, when he is ousted by a military coup.
Today: A civilian government is in power in Argentina and is attempting to redress the wrongs committed in previous decades against intellectuals, writers, and journalists, many of whom were kidnapped and killed by the government then in power.
- 1950s: Adolfo Prieto's book Borges y la nueva generación (Borges and the New Generation) appears in 1954. This is the first volume of literary criticism devoted solely to Borges's work.
Today: New critical articles and books about Borges regularly appear worldwide in many languages.
- 1950s: Across the world, the Cold War pits Communist and Democratic nations against each other. In Latin America, there is a rapid growth of communist groups, leading to the Cuban Revolution in Cuba. Likewise, in many other countries including Argentina, left-wing political groups agitate for change.
Today: Communist and socialist groups in several Latin American countries continue to press for power, but left-wing political parties in Argentina have not been overly successful. Cuba remains a communist country.
- 1950s: Existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre write about the importance of human existence and moral choices, in spite of their belief that life is devoid of ultimate meaning. For the existentialists, God is dead. Borges's interest in language, rather than in human existence, placed him out of step with prevailing philosophical trends of his day.
Today: Philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida focus on the function of language as a tool for the construction (and deconstruction) of reality. For the postmodernists, the Author is dead. Most contemporary critics see Borges as the precursor of Foucault and Derrida.
However, by the 1930s, Argentina began an economic slide, pushing many Argentines to question European ideas and influence. The outbreak of World War II served to isolate Argentina somewhat from Europe. The country maintained its neutrality throughout the war, only declaring war on the Axis powers near the end of hostilities in 1945. Borges and his family openly aligned themselves with the Allies, largely due to their English heritage and their distaste for nationalism and fascism.
Argentina, however, became increasingly nationalistic after World War II. Old patrician families such as the Borges found themselves in the minority in the new order. In 1946, Juan Perón, a military general, came to power. This was significant for Borges who, although fairly apolitical, had signed a petition denouncing fascism in all forms. As a result, Perón removed Borges from his post at the municipal library and appointed him as a poultry inspector, a position that Borges refused. Some critics argue that the fantastic stories that Borges wrote during the 1940s and the 1950s were his escape from the difficulties of World War II and the Perón years; however, there are others who see in Borges a rejection of contemporary history and politics.
Perón and his wife Eva were popular with the common people in the years immediately after his election. However, he grew increasingly despotic, although he was reelected as president in 1951. Perón began interfering with universities and took control of the newspapers. In addition, he began making moves against the Catholic Church.
By 1955, however, Perón's regime was toppled by a coup. Borges, and other members of the middle class were overjoyed to see him go. Perón went into exile. Back in favor, Borges was appointed the Director of the National Library in 1955. The year, however, was bittersweet for Borges, as it was in 1955 that his blindness became total and irreversible.
After the departure of the Peróns, Argentina moved through periods of military dictatorships followed by periods of constitutional democracy. The country repeatedly moved from times of greater restriction and repression to times of a more open society. By the late 1950s, young people were once again looking to Perónism as a potential answer to their country's woes. As a result, through the early 1960s, Borges was regarded with suspicion as a member of the old guard.
In 1961, six international publishing houses decided to join together to create a prestigious literary award. This prize, called the Formentor Prize, was awarded to Samuel Beckett of Ireland and to Borges. As a result, Borges was able to leave the political tribulations of his homeland, and begin the journeys that marked the remainder of his life. Just as Borges had been deeply influenced by European values and aesthetics as a young man, he was able to establish himself as a citizen of the world during the turbulent 1960s.
Borges's work has been in the public and critical eye for nearly seventy years, and interest in both the writer and his literary productions shows no sign of slowing. Indeed, his fame seems to grow with each passing year. As early as 1973, J. M. Cohen recognized in his book Borges that Borges was ahead of his time and that "prophetically he understood the situation of a generation then unthought of, which has come to doubt the metaphysical assumptions of its fathers and grandfathers."
"Borges and I," first published in Argentina as "Borges y yo," in the January 1957 issue of the journal Biblioteca, was later collected in Borges's 1960 volume, El Hacedor (The Maker). This collection was later translated by Mildred Boyer and Harold Moreland as Dreamtigers; the book appeared in the United States in 1964. In a still later translation, Andrew Hurley returned the title of the book to the direct translation of the Spanish title, The Maker.
The Maker is an odd collection of prose, poetry, fiction, and essay, comprised of various pieces of previously unpublished writing Borges kept around his house. When his publisher asked him to produce a new book, Borges, by then completely blind, gathered this work, and also created some additional new pieces. Of all the individual works collected in this volume, "Borges and I" stands out as the one most frequently cited. Donald A. Yates in Modern Fiction Studies argues that "Its significance as a key of sorts to the interpretation of Borges's work has … been widely acknowledged."
For Emir Rodriguez Monegal, author of Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, the unifying characteristic of the poems and stories in The Maker is that they seem to be autobiographical. He calls "Borges and I" "explicitly autobiographical" and argues that it became Borges's "final statement on his literary persona."
More recently, Thomas H. Ogden, in an article in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, approaches "Borges and I" from a psychological perspective, also linking the poem to events in Borges's life. He theorizes that Borges wrote both this work and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" as a result of "enormous emotional losses." He further suggests that "successful mourning centrally involves a demand that we make on ourselves to create something—whether it be a memory, a dream, a story, a poem, a response to a poem—that begins to meet, to be equal to, the full complexity of our relationship to what has been lost and to the experience of loss itself."
On the other hand, Edwin Williamson in his 2004 biography, Borges: A Life, argues that both "Borges and I" and "The Maker" grow out of the historical context; Williamson writes that they are texts "written out of a growing sense of dread, for in the course of 1957, Borges must have realized that the prospects of creating a democratic Argentina … depended critically on the outcome of the presidential elections that were scheduled to take place in July 1958."
Still other critics find in Borges's work connections to writers who came before him, as well as to writers who came after. For example, in an article titled "Eliot, Borges, Tradition, and Irony," José Luis Venegas looks at the connection between the English poet T.S. Eliot's famous essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and Borges's work. Venegas argues "that Borges's views on tradition and the individual talent, although superficially in accordance with Eliot's, can in fact be read as their ironic reversal." Further, critic James Gardner, writing an obituary for Borges in the New Criterion, compares Borges to the Italian writer Italo Calvino, suggesting that while both writers demonstrate postmodern concerns in their writing, Calvino will be most remembered by future literary critics and philosophers. Gardner's analysis has proven wrong; while Calvino is still an important name in literature today, his works are not nearly as popularly or critically acclaimed.
Regardless of the interpretation, however, "Borges and I" has become an emblematic work for Borges scholars, one that points to Borges's understanding of both the role of the author, and the role of the subject. Indeed, one can nearly trace the last fifty years of literary theory by looking at the critical interpretations of this poem, ranging from psychological analysis, to deconstruction and to new historical criticism. It is indicative of the power that Borges holds for literary scholars that this small parable continues to shed light on the relationship among writers and readers.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English who writes widely on literary issues. In this essay, she examines Borges's growing stature as a cultural icon, a development anticipated by Borges himself in poems such as "Borges and I."
There are few writers better known worldwide than Borges. Scholars credit him with influencing such diverse writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Manuel Puig, and Umberto Eco. Borges's influence on postmodern literature and thought is all the more remarkable when one realizes that his entire literary output is only about five hundred pages, and that his stories rarely run more than ten or twelve pages. Indeed, as he aged, and his blindness increased, Borges's individual works shrank, with many pieces, such as "Borges and I" running three hundred words or less. Perhaps even more astonishing, however, is the way that Borges has crossed the cultural divide and is on his way to becoming not only a highly regarded writer and philosopher among scholars, but also an icon within Western popular culture.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Luis Fernando Verissimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2004) is novel about a man called Vogelstein who admires Borges. When he goes to an Edgar Allan Poe conference in Buenos Aires and encounters a locked-room mystery, he teams up with Borges to solve the mystery. The book is both an homage to Borges and a parody at the same time.
- The Aleph (1949) is a collection of some of Borges's best short fictions and serves to introduce the reader to some of the writer's most enduring images and themes, including the labyrinth, mirrors, and time. The collection is still in print.
- Labyrinths (1962), also by Borges, is a widely available collection of Borges's stories, poems, and essays. This collection is essential for any student who wants to learn more about Borges and his writing.
- The Name of the Rose (1984), by Umberto Eco, is a medieval murder mystery that features a blind librarian obsessed with mirrors and labyrinths and named Jorge of Burgos. Eco's encyclopedic knowledge rivals Borges's own. Anyone interested in how Borges has been used as a literary character will enjoy this novel.
- The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury is a collection of short and fantastic stories. Borges is reported to have asked his mother to read him stories from Bradbury after his near fatal accident, and he maintained a lifelong admiration for the American writer.
The word "icon" comes out of a religious context, and originally meant an image or symbol of sacred significance. Icons historically held a special place of importance in the Greek Orthodox church. Over time, the meaning shifted to include people, places, or items of cultural importance. Individuals who might qualify as cultural icons are more than just famous. To be an icon, a person must be recognized by a wide number of people across the culture, and noted for his or her widespread influence. Icons, whether people, places, events, or objects, lend themselves to reproduction. They are copied, parodied, emulated, and disseminated widely across the culture. In the case of an individual person, this reproduction can include the visual image of the person; his or her ideas; his or her words; and/or events where the person was present. For example, Albert Einstein is a cultural icon. With his wild hair and quirky personality, he is instantly recognizable to most Americans. His image is readily available and his ideas color even daily life. In one extremely well-known picture, Einstein sticks out his tongue at the photographer taking the picture. The humor of the photo, coupled with the knowledge that Einstein's genius led to the creation of the atomic bomb creates the multi-layered and complex response to the image necessary for its classification as iconic. Thus, when Americans see Einstein, they see more than just a person: they see a symbol of genius, a symbol of the great (and sometimes terrible) power of the human mind. Likewise, Shakespeare has become iconic in Western culture. His image is recognizable across national, socioeconomic, and ethnic boundaries. Moreover, his words have entered common parlance to such an extent that most people are not even aware that they are quoting Shakespeare as the words come out of their mouths.
Something similar has happened to the figure of Borges in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. Borges himself seemed to predict this in "Borges and I." However, few, if any critics, would have assigned the role of cultural icon to Borges while he was alive. In 1986, for example, in an obituary for Borges in the New Criterion, critic James Gardner, while comparing Borges to Italian writer Italo Calvino, wrote,
While the recently deceased Calvino remains very much a writer of the moment, Borges, one is sad to report, has probably had his day. This is not to say that he is no longer read, nor no longer admired, since the spate of laudatory articles that his death occasioned handsomely confirmed the esteem in which he had been held internationally for a generation. And yet, he no longer means to the general literary public as much as he did only ten years ago.
It is not surprising that Gardner held this view. Who could have predicted in 1986 that an elderly blind librarian from Argentina who wrote only short poems, stories, and essays would enter the collective consciousness of Western culture to such an extent?
In retrospect, it seems very clear that Gardner was wrong. Borges's fame has continued to spread, and he means a great deal more to the general literary public today than he did at the time of his death. In an article in World Literature Today, published in 2006, critic Pablo Brescia argues that "on the twentieth anniversary of his death, the competing chorus of scholarship on Jorge Luis Borges … seems to be never ending."
Oddly, Borges seems to have anticipated this turn in "Borges and I," as he does in several other of his short fictions. Borges implies that there are two distinct stages in the establishment of an icon. In the first place, the object or person must first be stripped of any inherent meaning in and of itself. In order for the symbolic significance of the figure to become universal across the culture, the individual personality or the characteristic individuality of the object must be erased. What remains is a recognizable shell. In the second stage, stories, events, and traits, some having their source in the facts of the individual's life and others manufactured to increase symbolic significance, begin to adhere to the shell. These stories, events, and traits serve to support the symbolic significance of the figure rather than the human being who once inhabited the shell. Whether the stories, events or traits are true or not is immaterial; they become true in their support of the icon.
For example, George Washington, another American icon, was a Virginia planter who became the commander in chief of the colonial army at the time of the American Revolution and who ultimately became the president of the United States. Did he drink tea? What time did he typically get up? What was his favorite food? None of these things matter. What existed of the physical human being who was called George Washington has long since vanished. At this point, the first step of the iconic process is complete: the erasure of the individual who was Washington and the creation of a shell to which stories, events, and objects can adhere. Thus, the story of Washington and the cherry tree, while not factual, is symbolically significant for the iconic Washington in that it emphasizes Washington's truthfulness.
Likewise, in "Borges and I," Borges begins (or continues) his ongoing maneuver of demonstrating the ways that a writer's work erases the writer himself or herself. "Borges and I" demonstrates this maneuver clearly. The poem has many autobiographical details, the specific details that make up an individual personality. For example, the narrator tells the reader that he likes "hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson." These details, however, are erased in the next sentence when the narrator reports that Borges "shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor." The movement of the specific details from the internally held preferences of the narrator to the externally visible attributes of an actor demonstrates the process of erasure of the private individual and creation of the public iconic persona. Those attributes formerly associated with the individual now adhere to the shell.
As further illustration of the process, the narrator reports, "Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things." Borges, of course, did just what his narrator accuses him of. There are countless instances of Borges changing the details of his life in various interviews and autobiographies. By doing so, he effectively nullifies himself as a human being, and begins the creation and recreation of himself as icon, an ongoing project picked up by others once Borges the person ceased to exist.
In an article for World Literature Today, Pablo Brescia describes an "intertextual phenomena" that he calls "literaturization." In this process, a writer other than Borges appropriates Borges's topics, images, style, ideas, and even the personhood of Borges himself by using him as a character in a story, play, or novel. Brescia examines several such usages, including two anthologies of Borges-like writing published in 1999: Borges multiple (Multiple Borges) and Escrito sobre Borges (Writing about Borges). Brescia could also have included in his discussion Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, a 2004 novel by Luis Fernando Verissimo that features Borges as a main character. In one of the earliest examples of Borges-as-character, Umberto Eco created the character Jorge of Burgos as the primary villain of his popular 1984 novel, The Name of the Rose.
Further, in 1995, Dan Halpern invited multiple writers to produce short work that used "Borges and I" as their starting point. Published as Who's Writing This?, the volume demonstrates how widely the iconic Borges has filtered into Western culture. In addition, literary journals regularly publish poems in the style of Borges or that allude to Borges, such as "The Blue Borges" by Terrance Hayes, appearing in the Antioch Review. Hayes concludes his poem thusly: "I long as Spinoza said all things long in their being to persist." In its length, style, images, allusions, and themes, "Blue Borges" pays homage to, and helps create, the iconic Borges, while it also continues to erase the man who was Borges.
There is more. Borges is not only being "literaturized," to use Brescia's coinage. His iconic stature continues to grow through the Internet. YouTube is a wildly popular Internet site where videos and multi-media clips are available for free access to whomever wishes to view them. The site, then, disseminates images, text, and sound quickly and freely. Not surprisingly, Borges has a home on YouTube. Indeed, one popular short video clip is called "Borges y yo a Go Go." In this clip, photo and films of Borges, along with manuscript pages of "Borges y yo," move across the screen while the audio track includes a recording of Borges reading "Borges y yo" with a guitar playing a tango in the background. In addition, in March of 2007, there were some eighty-six different clips of Borges present for downloading and viewing on YouTube. Perhaps even more astounding is that a search for the phrase "Jorge Luis Borges" on Google in March of 2007 produced 1,450,000 hits. Clearly, Borges holds significance for the postmodern generation of Western culture.
Near the end of "Borges and I," Borges writes, "Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him." In this line, Borges captures the entire process, from person to icon. The final line, "I do not know which one of us has written this page," set off as a new paragraph, signals that the process is complete. What once was Borges is gone; what now remains is Borges. That Borges saw his future seems evident in his work, and the irony of this movement—from blind librarian to cultural icon—was not lost on him. He closes his 1964 poem, "Elegy" with these words: "Oh destiny of Borges, / perhaps no stranger than your own."
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "Borges and I," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, Brescia claims that Borges's political views and various writings about Borges have contributed to the phenomenon in which Borges's persona became something of an independent object that existed, and still exists, independently of Borges himself. Brescia then goes on to note that "Borges and I" not only acknowledges and plays with this concept but simultaneously adds to it as well.
Borges and I, and I, and I …
Seven years after the centennial of his birth, and on the twentieth anniversary of his death, the competing chorus of scholarship on Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) seems to be never ending: new editions of his work, worldwide academic conferences, and a Center for Studies and Documentation located, until moving recently to Iowa, in a very Borgesian-sounding place, the University of Arhus in Denmark. In that chorus, the critical readings by John Updike, John Barth, Susan Sontag, Angela Carter, Julian Barnes, Italo Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, are testimonials to the Argentine writer's impact on reading and writing for many contemporary authors.
However, there is an echo in those voices that goes beyond what might be written about Borges's fictions or essays on literature. I am referring to writers "writing Borges." What happens when Borges is written? Two books published in 1999, Borges multiple: Cuentos y ensayos de cuentistas and Escrito sobre Borges: Catorce autores le rinden homenaje, provide some answers. In the first section of Borges multiple, short stories either play with Borgesian topics—labyrinths, apocryphal texts, doubles—or introduce him or one of his characters into the story. In the second volume, well-established Argentine writers—Mempo Giardinelli, Angelica Gorodischer, and Luisa Valenzuela, among others—rewrite a Borges story of their liking to their liking, thus the Escrito sobre Borges title, writing not about Borges but literally over Borges, in palimpsest-like fashion.
To begin approaching this intertextual phenomenon, which we might call the "literaturization" of writers, let us look at "La entrevista" (1979; The interview), by Argentine writer Mempo Giardinelli, and "Borges el comunista" (1977; Borges the communist), by Mexican writer Rene Aviles Fabila. Both stories engage Borges as a literary object: Giardinelli fictionalizes him to debate Borgesian poetics; Aviles Fabila subverts the political persona created by Borges's public comments. My main intent is thus to address the effects produced by texts that appropriate Borgesian poetics and politics.
Interview with the Vampire
At the beginning of "The Interview," the narrator, who is a writer and a journalist, summarizes his relationship with that "unusual old man whom I have admired, and, of course, I still hate" (Borges multiple). He had seen Borges twice before: in a restaurant and near a bank. The interview, however, happens in a nightmare that ends with vertigo and a scream. The narrator-protagonist wakes up, figures it was a bad dream, and comes to a reassuring yet disappointing conclusion: "The simple fact is nobody is ever going to ask me to interview Borges." Some of the story's narrative elements are in clear dialogue with Borgesian poetics, especially the play with time, the story-within-a-story frame, and the foreshadowing technique.
The story takes place in 2028; the narrator is eighty-one years old, and Borges is one hundred and thirty. This allusion to Borges's "eternity" elicits a smile and underlines the writer's ubiquitous figure. The timeline has another curious effect, though, since the distant future (although not so distant at the time of our reading, it is forty-nine years from the time of the writing of the story) establishes a distance for readers, perhaps making it easier to accept this Borges as a pervasive character. On the other hand, the first "real" meeting between the protagonist and Borges occurs at the restaurant around 1970-71, and the second encounter, at the bank, can be dated to 1974-75. The 1970s, a period of extreme social and political upheaval in Argentina, are the most prominent time in the story. In the real world, the real Borges turned more conservative, the military junta took over the government in 1976, and Giardinelli's story was published. In the story, this second meeting takes place, the narrator explains, "before I had left Buenos Aires when the long night began in 1976." Besides bringing to the surface the collective political situation at the time, the date makes readers equate the narrator with the real Giardinelli, who left the country that year, lived in Mexico until 1986, and is now back in his country. The third meeting, meanwhile, happens in the dream and corresponds to the time of the interview and the story.
These juxtapositions of times hint at another recognizable Borgesian device, the mise-en-abime structure, exemplified in "The Interview" with two stories told by the character of Borges. In one of them, he follows a writer and erases everything he writes without his victim knowing it; in the end, Borges discovers that the writer is himself.
Like the stories-within-stories frame, inlaid details figure prominently in "The Interview." In the dream, the blue suit that Borges wears when he goes out with Giardinelli is the same suit he had on when his interviewer "really" saw Borges in 1974-75; the 1970-71 tablecloth with red-and-white squares reappears in the dream when Borges and Giardinelli go into a restaurant; and, when both are at the bank, the impatient young man who is lined up behind them in the dream is the twenty-five-year-old Giardinelli. These repetitions foreshadow the inevitable yet surprising revelation: "Borges had entangled me in his spider's web, in a horrible paradox where reality was fantastic and fantasy real," the narrator realizes. Readers may wonder if it isn't the architecture of Borges's stories that causes Giardinelli's agitation at the end of the tale.
For all the protagonist's animosity and angered tone throughout, "The Interview" cannot evade a few elements of the Borgesian universe. Some are a parody in its most elementary sense of mockery (e.g., the list of critics, a mix of real people and imaginary characters who, like parasites, live off Borges); others become a parody, given that they refer to a prior literary discourse: Borges's literature. In the end, the dream becomes a nightmare and the narrator encounters his own sel[f] there are two possible endings, and the interviewer is "a capricious old man who suffers from gastritis and is determined to imagine the impossible."
El "Che" Borges
Between 1940 and 1960, the mature years of his writing, Borges made three important decisions as a citizen: he repudiated Juan Domingo Peron's rise to power; he praised the military-led "Revolucion Libertadora" that overthrew Peron in 1955; and he aligned himself with the Allies during and after World War II. From the 1960s on, the time of his international acclaim, Borges was deemed a political reactionary, a reputation fueled by countless interviews wherein he seemingly lashed out at almost anything or anybody, even though nobody bothered to find out if he was kidding or, well, being Borges.
Perhaps no other Latin American writer has been more confronted for his political views than Borges. Is there any other writer who holds the dubious distinction of having two books, Contra Borges (1978) and Anti-Borges (1999), critical of his political views? This apparent animosity could be explained in part by the fact that he went against the grain and did not sympathize with socialism like many of his contemporaries (e.g., Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortazar). In this sense, Borges might have been a revolutionary of a different sort, a "Che" of letters, fighting for the autonomy of his craft in times that called for "committed" literature. However naive this revolution may be, the books mentioned not only signal the body of criticism on Borges's political thought—although Borges himself would deny partaking of such a thing—but also make evident his importance for the relationship between politics and literature in Latin America.
Unlike the character created by Giardinelli, Borges was never a communist. That is the reason why "Borges the Communist," Aviles Fabila's story, creates such an oxymoronic effect. The genealogy of the tale reinforces an ironic context of reception. It first appeared in El Machete, a publication of the Mexican Communist Party, and was later included in Aviles Fabila's 1988 book, El diccionario de los homenajes (A dictionary of tributes). What might be considered a private joke in one context may be viewed as a curious yet careful selection of one aspect of Borges's larger-than-life legacy for Latin American writers in another. Written as a newspaper article, the story's objective style acts as a counterpoint to the amusing repercussions that a communist Borges would have had. Starting from an "as if" Borgesian framework, the results of such a contrary-to-fact situation produce the subversive outcome.
On the one hand, we find the reactions of those involved in this affair. The Argentine Communist Party supports Borges's conversion, which confirms that "historical reason" is on his side. However, he will have to follow the road that leads from the Communist Youth to the party: "The Argentine comrades are very severe on this: many years of experience and maturity are required to achieve change. For this reason, Borges, although eighty years old, shall remain in the Communist Youth ranks so as to obtain, through his study of Marxism, the necessary knowledge to be a member of the Party." The repercussions of Borges's imaginary membership in the Communist Party emphasizes the double-edged sword of irony, making the readers see through the veil of language and reinforcing the idea that politics is not the art of the possible but the art of the convenient. The Trotskyites, holders of "the Holy Grail of revolutionary purity," are still critical of Borges and accuse him of being a Stalinist, but the military junta believes that this conversion is a clear example of the freedom that reigns in Argentina, where only "extremists" are persecuted. Of course, the logical conclusion would be that "Borges will now receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, like other communist writers before him such as Neruda."
To characterize this political persona, Aviles Fabila mixes real data with imaginary actions or comments by this "born again" Borges. Throughout the story, we find references to the criticism Borges received because of his political positions, to his infamous handshake with Pinochet and equally infamous support for the Vietnam War, to his breakfast with the junta. But all this comes under a different light in the story since, in it, Borges understands that, to his customary themes (the self, time, mirrors), he will need to add dialectical materialism and class struggle. He will also need to read the classics: Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
On the surface, Aviles Fabila's story is a witty exercise about a most ironic writer. But the critical dimension of this narrative warns readers both about the dangers of blind praise and the idea of a Borges "for export" as well as the ineffectiveness of a critique that confines Borges to a ready-made ideological cast.
The Influence of Anxiety
In a time (1949) when Borges was barely beginning to be "Borges," or recognized as such, Augusto Monterroso, an early reader of his, said: "When we meet Borges, we become, in a way, ill. We are not prepared for this illness, and the restlessness that overtakes us is aggravated by not knowing if this illness will be over one day or if it will end up killing us. I suppose no greater compliment can be given to a writer. We all know similar diseases: they are called Proust, Joyce, Kafka."
The stories discussed here are examples of that "illness" that keeps leaving its mark on readers and writers. Both Giardinelli and Aviles Fabila dialogue with a canonical literary figure, but they also try to create their own space within the Latin American literary horizon. They could be experiencing Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence." In this case, however, we might be better off speaking about the "influence of anxiety." Why? Because Latin American writers are eager to move out from the shadows of the masters. "Post-Boom" writers such as Giardinelli and Aviles Fabila did not define an agenda to achieve this distancing, but the younger generations, admirers of Borges, are confronting another major legacy of Latin America's fiction in the twentieth century: exporting magical realism. Speaking of writers, the interviewer in Giardinelli's story says: "The little fish is the one who fears the big fish; the shark never worries about the sardine."
In the case of Borges, one of the ways this process takes place is through the objectification of his figure as a writer. The modus operandi appears to be "if we cannot beat him, let's make him literature." What are the effects of this process? Giardinelli, for all his attempts at humor, attacks both what Borges represents and his veneration of the critics. Result? The narrator ends up a pawn in Borges's plot, and Giardinelli has written—what else?—a Borgesian story. Thus, we could speak of a contamination effect, derived from the strong pull of Borgesian poetics. As for Aviles Fabila's story, the invention of a contrary-to-Borges real political persona generates complexity in meaning, and we could thus refer to an ironic distancing. The sharpness of this ironic distancing seems to fade when applied to Borges, due to the open-ended quality of his works and words. But when applied to some of his supporters as well as some of his critics, that distancing makes evident the ridiculousness and rigidity of certain political and cultural institutions. There is an old joke that one of Borges's first biographers (presumably Emir Rodriguez Monegal) believed that when Borges wrote his classic "Borges and I," the "I" referred to the late Uruguayan critic.
The option exercised by Giardinelli and Aviles Fabila, to make Borges a literary fetish, makes manifest, among other things, the tension between tradition and rupture, the effects of a writer's life and works on other writers, and the shortcomings and hopes of sardines.
In the 1954 preface to the second edition of his Universal History of Iniquity, Borges declares: "I would define the Baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature" (1998). Perhaps this is the Borgesian phase we are in. Borges is being used. It should come as no surprise that he anticipated this in "Borges and I," "The Other," "August 25th, 1983," and other texts. As usual, he was the first, before Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Giardinelli, and Aviles Fabila, to call for the death of the author, to understand the author-function, to become a character in his own stories, and to be irreverent with him. He [Borges] began to "disauthorize" himself and became, in the process, a literary object.
Legend has it that when Witold Gombrowicz left Argentina, he shouted from the rail of the ship: "Boys, you better kill Borges." Obeying that order looks more and more unlikely, since the stories discussed here are only a sample of the ever-increasing phenomenon of Borges's literaturization. I wonder if this points to one of the directions post (but not past) Borgesian fiction might take: a writing that proposes both dialogue and play, not of characters in search of an author, but of writers in a struggle with the legacy of their precursors. Borges once defined the essential condition for the survival of a book or a page: it had to be "everything for everyone" (1996). Little did he know—or, perhaps, he did suspect?—that he would continue to be "everything to everyone," and I imagine he might accept happily the idea that one of his destinies is, still, the literary page.
Source: Pablo Brescia, "Post or Past Borges? The Writer as Literary Object," in World Literature Today, Vol. 80, No. 5, September-October 2006, pp. 48-52.
Kane X. Faucher
In the following essay, Faucher presents a detailed textual analysis of "Borges and I." In his examination, Faucher tries to determine if the narrator is or is not Borges, and he also proposes the existence of a "meta-Borges," the "real author … who sets the semi-fictional characters of Borges and the narrator into motion." Faucher also looks at the many philosophical and metaphysical theories of identity that are revealed by a close reading of "Borges and I."
"Borges and I" presents its readers with a perplexing riddle: who is the author? The narrative, set in Buenos Aires, proceeds by detailing a first-person account of the narrator's feelings of detachment and resignation that the other part of him, the dominant ego or subject of the exposition, is eclipsing his own unique and honest life as a scribe of the people. The narrator speaks of a Borges as someone who is only interested in the acclaim of being a recognized author rather than having any true investment in the craft itself. It is a somewhat sorrowful account of the narrator who tells of his slow and inevitable surrender to the demands of the ego. Apart from the salient significance this story has for psychoanalytic study, we will here limit ourselves to a few overarching philosophical themes and linguistic nuances. …
Within the fundamental question of authorship in this story, we are confronted with the implicit understanding that, yes, Borges wrote this story as is evidenced by the fact that his name appears upon the cover of the book in which the story appears. But what is curious is the first-person account of the narrator who refers to Borges as someone other, but as an other that shares a great deal of similar traits to the narrator. … Already, the reader is called upon to incorporate two separate input spaces (narrator and Borges) and perform a blend of identity. As we will postulate, there are three possible solutions or interpretations that we will here subsume categorically. …
Solution 1: The Narrator Is Not Borges
In the opening lines, the framework is established that the reader is possibly dealing with two entities: a narrator and Borges. The separation of the two (id)entities by a principle of difference is textually supported by the opening disjunction of being acted upon versus not being acted upon: "The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happens to." …
Is Borges as subject the progenitor of the narrator? How is one's existence dependent upon a piece of text? In colloquial speech, we could say that a writer's existence, understood as financial livelihood and acclaim, is dependent upon textual production and publication. But this cannot be the case in this instance, for the presupposition fails when we keep in mind that the narrator and Borges are (in this reading) separate entities, and it seems inconsistent to assert that someone else's writing could sustain the narrator. …
Moreover, in a mapping, the entire story is based on the narrator's account, and so a matter of his belief or interpretation of the event. The paradox becomes quite clear when we consider that in order for the narrator to have a belief or an interpretation, that he is acted upon, which is already contradicted in the first line of the story. If anything else, Borges' writing "happens" to the narrator and, if we are to believe that the narrator's existence is dependent upon Borges' writing, then it would appear that Borges—not the narrator—is the agentive force, and that Borges is narrating the narrator in narrating Borges (!). …
If we are not to commit too heavily to the idea that there is an empirical separation between this narrator and Borges, then there is cause to believe on this rather short account that an advocacy is being tendered toward a separation of being and thinking …
Lastly, there is a troubling line that highlights this perplexing text, a one line flourish dropped at the end of the text which we are left to ponder: "I do not know which of us has written this page." The operating words of "which" and "us" reifies the division between two separate entities, both capable of writing. The question of authorship is left to the reader to determine—or to leave as an aporia, an open-ended text. But what we do discover is that there are too many epistemic lacunas and doubts that do not fully satisfy our demands to prove that, indeed, two separate entities exist in this story.
Solution 2: The Narrator Is Borges
This formulation would strike the reader as more sensible, for even when considering fictional texts that utilize fictional characters, they are being "narrated" into existence by an author who wrote the book. It is only by our suspense of disbelief that we attribute any degree of reality to the characters as independent speakers. …
In a brief list of textual clues given throughout this text, we learn that if Borges is the narrator, Borges has a relationship with himself that is not hostile, Borges justifies his own life by writing, Borges gives everything to Borges (or oblivion), Borges falsifies and magnifies himself, Borges once attempted an escape from Borges, and one day Borges will perish in Borges. These are troubling propositions, but they follow from a declaration that the narrator is Borges. We may not wish to remain committed to this reading either on this basis.
More troubling still is the notion that Borges not only resides in himself, but that he is not himself (where the narrator claims that he is not in Borges, but will one day perish in him). This sets up a logical contradiction where Borges both is and is not. Temporally speaking, we could assert this as in "I am now, and I will one day (in death) no longer be." However, the added clause problematizes even this explanation, for it is implied that the narrator (who is Borges) will perish in Borges, and will survive as a kind of residual presence in Borges. This is to say that Borges, if he is also the narrator, will be both alive and dead at the same time. The reader must now settle the disjunction of Borges or not-Borges, and the riddle of authorship. …
Are we to infer that in some bizarre postulation that Borges somehow represents the narrator who represents Borges (who, in turn, represents the narrator in a vicious circle)? This would, indeed, set up a circular paradox, one that is linked to the idea of naming and identity. On this point, we could perhaps just hang up the entire operation and withdraw, claiming that the text is an irresolvable paradox and nothing more, but speculation drives us on to quest further for some sort of reasonable explanation. In order to do this, we may require taking our leave of reasonable explanation and going forth into uncharted terrain. We have yet to consider the Borges behind the curtain, the progenitor of this discourse. This will unduly complicate matters, but it is necessary if we are to be thorough in our mapping. Our next possible solution will perhaps be as equally bizarre as the text that inspired it.
Solution 3: Meta-Borges
… [T]he meta-Borges is the real author that lurks behind the text, who sets the semi-fictional characters of Borges and narrator into motion. These are meant to be extensions or projections of the real Borges and how he reflects upon himself. As a self-reflexive critique, artfully done through figural representation, he utilizes the innovative strategy of textually abstracting these properties of himself as if they were two distinct entities rather than two attributes of himself. … Using the narrator as the mouthpiece, meta-Borges comments on the more repugnant features of his being, shedding light upon his occasional inauthenticity, but also salvaging himself with the use of the narrator to whom we feel a kind of pity. The narrator is constrained, and there is a direct pathos that is evoked, that this "false Borges" is some kind of tyrannical force that keeps the narrator in bondage, as evidenced by the narrator's lack of free will in having to surrender everything to Borges the ego. And no doubt, in the real writer's life, such constraints exist in the mind: control of subject matter, use of hyperbole (as a means of distorting, magnifying and falsifying real events), editing of content, etc. The narrator is set up as a journalist and martyr, for he both reports back to Borges all that he sees and experiences, and sacrifices his whole "being" to an enterprise that will most likely not justify or save him. The narrator is aware of his own mortality, destined that his utility will one day be at an end. And though the narrator has made attempts to flee the constraints of being in Borges, these have all come to naught, and he still holds out the vague hope that he will be justified through Borges writing. …
Essentially, this story boils down to an issue of time and the ego. Through an enumeration of pronoun references, we learn very little aside from the fact that the references to the narrator and Borges are roughly equal in number, and that there are two special instances when they are united by "ours" and "us" to denote a shared situation….
The narrator is uncertain whether he has an I to speak of, and whether this notion of an I is inherently pernicious seeing how Borges' strong sense of I has led to so many distortions and a disconnection from the people. The ego drives the work, not honesty. Not to say that all the pages are invalid, as the narrator charitably offers, but that they become increasingly tainted by an encroaching egotist view that desires popularity, honours, and acclaim. How do we deal with the death of the narrator? What will become of this attribute of meta-Borges? When the narrator perishes in Borges, leaving only an "instant" of himself behind as a kind of surviving residue, what remains will simply be the narrating function (empty and devoid of true authentic substance). …
Who is writing the story? This question may in the final analysis appear moot, for the "moral" of this parable is that there is no "I" in the written word; the author does not own the work, for the intellectual property is transferred to the ages. To assert the "I, author" is futile, as the narrator on occasion alludes. But are we getting the whole account? The narrator's confession is mediated through Borges the writer's writing, and so could prove to be a distortion—and we already know that the narrator is not free to express himself, that he is in thralldom to Borges who owns all of the narrator's thoughts.
Meta-Borges is thoroughly dissatisfied with what he has become. In parable form he has related his self-dissatisfaction that is in the spirit of irony: we would expect that the accomplished and recognized writer has succeeded in his tasks and can now experience the joy of his acclaim. But for meta-Borges, this prospect is the source of a great melancholy, and hence this parable. …
Source: Kane X. Faucher, "The Decompression of Meta-Borges in ‘Borges and I,’" in Variaciones Borges, Vol. 17, January 2004, pp. 159-86.
In the following excerpted passages, Ormsby remarks that the "nullification of personal identity" found throughout Borges's writing appears "side by side with a sort of wonder at the profusion of selves even the most ordinary life entails." This, of course, is particularly evident in "Borges and I."Throughout the essay, Ormsby attempts to interpret this theme by placing it within the context of biographical facts and anecdotes about the author, discussing several of Borges's other works along the way.
It was ironic of fate, though perhaps predictable, to allow Jorge Luis Borges to develop over a long life into his own Doppelgänger. In a 1922 essay entitled "The Nothingness of Personality," Borges asserted that "the self does not exist." Half-a-century later, an international personality laden with acclaim, he had to depend on wry, self-deprecating quips to safeguard his precious inner nullity. "Yo no soy yo" ("I am not I"), wrote Juan Ramón Jiménez; this was a proposition that Borges not only endorsed but also made a fundamental axiom of his oeuvre. In his story "The Zahir," written in the 1940s, he could state, "I am still, albeit only partially, Borges," and in "Limits," a poem from the 1964 collection aptly entitled The Self and the Other, he ended with the line (as translated by Alastair Reid), "Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me." By 1980, however, to an interviewer who said, "Everyone sitting in this audience wants to know Jorge Luis Borges," he would reply, "I wish I did. I am sick and tired of him." On the lecture circuit, Borges, playing Sancho Panza to his own Quixote, perfected the sardonic stratagems that would keep his huge prestige at bay. Not fortuitously perhaps, his renown grew as, after 1955, his final blindness deepened: fragile and vaguely Chaplinesque in his rumpled linen suit, he emanated a prophetic aura, a shy Tiresias enamored of the tango.
It had not always been thus. The prim and diffident mama's boy whose idea of a date, well into middle age, was to bring a girl home to sit dumbfounded before his overpowering dowager of a mother while she rehearsed the martial glories of "Georgie's" military forebears; the indolent librarian for whom a day of work at the Miguel Cané Municipal Library meant slipping off into some secluded nook to study works by Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, or Edward Gibbon (a combustible ménage à trois!); the awkward intellectual so self-conscious that he could appear in public only by hunching down behind the lectern while a friend read his words to the audience—all these tentative and inchoate identities (along with many others) coalesced to fabricate "Borges," that self-shaped golem of audacious erudition who accompanied, and often eclipsed, Borges himself on the triumphal peregrinations of his last three decades.
If the nullification of personal identity exists in his work side by side with a sort of wonder at the profusion of selves even the most ordinary life entails, this must be viewed in the context of Borges's larger obsessions. For he was haunted by infinitude. A horrified fascination with the limitless in space and in time animates all his finest works. The horror arises not because of immeasurable magnitude as such, but because of the fact that the unbounded is infinitely divisible. This is why Borges returns so frequently in essays and fictions to the ancient paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. For Borges, infinity is always serial; it demands replication ad infinitum. One of his favorite figures for infinitude is the mirror image, that vertiginous repetition of the same mute yet glimmering reflection. Hence, too, his related horror of mirrors: "I have been horrified before all mirrors," he wrote in the poem "The Mirrors": "I look on them as infinite, elemental / fulfillers of a very ancient pact / to multiply the world."
In "Averroës' Search" the narrator speaks of the "dread of the grossly infinite," by which he means "mere space, mere matter." The Borgesian infinite, by contrast, is filled, and its images are all ultimately double. Every identity, like the commonplace but magical coin in "The Zahir," possesses its obverse: each side both negates and reaffirms the other.
The library, whether the Library of Babel in his great "fiction" of the same name or the National Library of Argentina where Borges served as director for some eighteen years, is a fitting metaphor for infinitude. The fact that Borges was almost completely blind during his tenure as national librarian must have strengthened his sense of boundlessness. Anyone who has wandered in a large library at night when all the lights are out will appreciate the eerie sensation of limitlessness; the books on serried shelves, each foreshadowing its neighbor, appear to extend into endlessness, and to perceive this purely by touch must be doubly persuasive. In his magnificent "Poem of the Gifts," Borges wrote, "Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,/ high and profound, of this blind library."
Borges's two predecessors as national librarian had both been blind as well; this weird coincidence led him to identify with the more distinguished of them, Paul Groussac, and to muse on whether their identities were not after all interchangeable. The sharpened sense of recurrence, the fixed conviction that nothing is truly new, the awareness of fate as a player on a field of infinite yet starkly delimited possibilities, give a claustrophobic cast to Borges's most powerful fantasies. Small wonder that one of his favorite lines from Shakespeare is Hamlet's "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams!" And it is this pinched infinitude, if I may so put it, that ultimately makes of Borges, for all his fabled brevity, an epic writer. …
Borges wrote in the prologue to his 1975 collection of poems, The Unending Rose, that "verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presence of the sea does." Lovers of Borges's prose, especially of the incomparable stories in Fictions (1944) and The Aleph (1949), tend to dismiss his poetry; and yet, Borges saw himself, and with justice, first and foremost as a poet. An oddity about Borges, one of several, lies in the fact that his stories are many-layered and densely allusive while his verse by and large is plain and univocal. The demonic Borges penned the prose but in the poetry, Borges—not "Borges" in all his sly, Protean guises, but quotidian, all-too-human Jorge Luis—spoke in his soft but unmistakable individual voice.
Borges was probably too intelligent to become a great poet, most of whom seem to have a certain saving stupidity in abundant supply. He approvingly quotes a line by his compatriot, the often marvelous poet Leopoldo Lugones: "Iba el silencio andando como un largo lebrel" ("Silence was moving like a long greyhound"). The simile is slightly comical, and yet, as Borges recognized, the verse has a curious magic that arises not only from its intrinsic music, but also from its very strangeness. Despite the profound strangeness of his own imagination, Borges rarely captured such effects in verse. He usually does "communicate a precise instance," but he almost never manages to "touch us physically."
In the Viking Selected Poems, beautifully assembled by Alexander Coleman, we can, however, appreciate Borges's true strengths as a poet. Though he set out to become the "poet of Buenos Aires," Borges mainly succeeded as a poet, it seems to me, in the quite honorable but currently unfashionable tradition exemplified in English by such authors as Kipling, Stevenson, Belloc, and Chesterton; this is the tradition which T. S. Eliot, somewhat sniffily, referred to as "verse" as opposed to "poetry." If one thinks of Borges as a poet in this tradition—as, that is, an English poet who happened to write in Spanish—it is easier to appreciate his poetic achievement. Borges the poet suffers when set beside Lorca (whom he detested as a "professional Andalusian") or Neruda, or such brilliant compatriots as Lugones or Enrique Banchs, not because he necessarily possessed lesser gifts, but because he chose to write within an alien, and sharply circumscribed, tradition.
Borges excelled particularly in such forms as the ballad. The best of these is probably "The Golem." The version in the new edition, by Alan S. Trueblood, captures its playful mood (though not its mystery) rather well:
That cabbalist who played at being God
gave his spacey offspring the nickname Golem.
(In a learned passage of his volume,
these truths have been conveyed to us by
In a 1968 recording of Borges reading his poems, he comments that he and his one-time collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares consider this the best poem he has ever "perpetrated," and when he reads "The Golem," one understands why. What Borges was attempting in this and other such poems was not to create radical imagery or startling phrases but rather, with a maximum of craft and self-effacement, to tap into the age-old and immemorial sources of balladry. In Borges's soft yet distinct articulation of the poem, the listener senses his awareness of the old Scots Border ballads, of the German ballad tradition, of the medieval Spanish coplas. Despite his rather childish glee in the rhyme Golem/Scholem (he uses it twice), Borges demonstrates that one side of him—one Borges, as it were—would have liked nothing better than to meld into some primordial and anonymous tradition within which he would be indistinguishable from his fellows. Indeed, in his celebrated "Borges and I," he notes that "good writing belongs to no one in particular, not even to my other, but rather to language and tradition." …
There was after all something of the exemplum, if not exactly the saint, in Borges. In unexpected moments on a college stage or on some talk show, the Borgesian oracle would fall silent, and a personage of sly, calm, mischievous, and yet gentle demeanor would peer forth from his sightless eyes. Anecdotes abound; I give only one example from the large (and growing) literature. On his first visit to the desert in North Africa, Borges is seen sifting sand grains through his fingers and, when asked what he is doing, replies, "I am rearranging the Sahara." Such tales, whimsical, a bit sardonic, cryptic even, resemble the tales of the ancient philosophers as much as the tales of the Hasidim (a sect Borges identified with). Except for Kafka, no other modern writer has become as emblematic of himself and his own curious world as Borges has.
How extraordinary that so many-selved, so ultimately vaporous, a personage as Borges, or "Borges," should come to play this role. What other modern author was routinely quizzed for his views on time and memory, the enigma of personality, the possibility of an afterlife and personal immortality, among other ponderous topics, as was Borges? He cheerfully declared that he held no belief in an afterlife and that he personally welcomed the inevitable oblivion that would engulf his own name, as if extinction alone offered an escape from the claustrophobia of infinitude. "No one is someone," he wrote in "The Immortal," "a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world—which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not." Dignified despite his dishevelment, his crumpled fedora in one hand, his inquisitive white cane in the other, Señor Borges, our improbable psychopomp, shows us the way into unanimous night.
Source: Eric Ormsby, "Jorge Luis Borges & the Plural I," in New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 3, November 1999, 13 pp.
Bell-Villada, Gene H., Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to his Mind and Art, revised edition, University of Austin Press, 1999, pp. 247-54.
Borges, Jorge Luis, "Borges and I," in Labyrinths, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, translated by James E. Irby, New Directions Publishing, 1964, pp. 246-47.
———, "Elegy," in Labyrinths, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, translated by James E. Irby, New Directions Publishing, 1964, p. 251.
Brescia, Pablo, "Post or Past Borges? The Writer as Literary Object," in World Literature Today, Vol. 80, No. 5, September-October 2006, pp. 48-52.
Cohen, J. M., Borges, Oliver & Boyd, 1973, p. 1.
Faucher, Kane X., "The Decompression of Meta-Borges in ‘Borges and I,’" in Variaciones Borges, Vol. 17, January 2004, p. 159.
Gardner, James, "Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986," in the New Criterion, Vol. 10, No. 2, October 1986, pp. 16-24.
Hayes, Terrance, "The Blue Borges," in the Antioch Review, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 96-7.
Monegal, Emir Rodríguez, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, E.P. Dutton, 1978, p. 439.
Ogden, Thomas H., "Borges and the Art of Mourning," in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2000, pp. 65-88.
Ormsby, Eric, "Jorge Luis Borges & the Plural I," in the New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 3, November 1999.
Venegas, José Luis, "Eliot, Borges, Tradition, and Irony," in Symposium, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter 2006, p. 237.
Williamson, Edwin, Borges: A Life, Viking, 2004, p. 338.
Yates, Donald A., "Behind ‘Borges and I’," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, Autumn 1973, p. 318.
Borges, Jorge Luis, Ficciones, Grove Press, 1969.
A collection of some of Borges's most famous stories including "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "Three Versions of Judas," and "Death and the Compass."
———, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman, Penguin, 2000.
This collection contains some of Borges's best-known works, including the full text of "Borges and I" in a translation that is not as well known as the Irby translation quoted in this entry. What is most interesting in this book is the diversity of translators. Indeed, students interested in Borges can profitably compare the work of several different translators here.
Halpern, Dan, Who's Writing This?, Ecco Press, 1995.
In 1995, Dan Halpern asked assorted writers to create a piece of writing in response to "Borges and I." He asked that individual pieces be of the same length as "Borges and I," and that the writers use Borges as their starting point. This book is a collection of those responses.
Strathern, Paul, Borges in 90 Minutes, Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Strathern's introduction to Borges is an ideal place for a student to begin learning about the great writer. The book is accessible, and includes a good annotated bibliography.